A Pinker Disappointment

I have read most of Steven Pinker’s new book, Rationality, and I came away disappointed. Other books on the topic are better.

One aspect that annoyed me was Pinker’s political positioning. He says, in not so many words:

  • Conservatives are stupid and anti-science

  • The academy is too much of a left-wing monoculture

But if conservatives are stupid and anti-science, why shouldn’t the academy be a monoculture?

In his earlier book, The Blank Slate, Pinker addressed the stupidity and anti-science beliefs of the academic left. In this recent interview with Richard Hanania, Pinker readily concedes that things have been getting worse, not better (Pinker notes that without tenure, one could not express his views safely in today’s academy). I wish that this interview could have been included in Rationality, in order to give it better balance.

A stronger criticism I have concerns the way the book is constructed as a how-to manual. One of the most important aspects of rationality is fallibilism, which is the understanding that as individuals we are often wrong. Pinker explains fallibilism, but he makes it seem as though he is offering a toolkit to overcome it.

The lesson that we are all fallible is undermined by the professorial tone of the book. It is constructed like a lecture, complete with winks to current culture, digs at Trump supporters, and comic strips to illustrate points. Overall, the book comes across as a Sermon From On High, with the professor passing on knowledge for the students to take notes and absorb. It makes it seem as though once one has learned the toolkit and been inducted into the society of the rational, one need not fear being wrong.

In fact, he has not acquired the wisdom of Julia Galef (The Scout Mindset) that rationality is not a toolkit. Instead, it is a mindset. And ironically, the more you are convinced that you are in that mindset, the less likely it is that you are being rational. Galef emphasizes this. Moreover, she models it. She constantly interrupts a point that she is making to remind the reader that she could be wrong. Indeed, one might say that constantly reminding yourself that you could be wrong is a key to truth-seeking. I briefly reviewed her book here.

But both Galef and Pinker share a weakness, in my opinion. They focus on rationality as an individual characteristic. But human knowledge is a social phenomenon. We can be much more rational collectively than individually. Pinker makes exactly this point, but he goes almost nowhere with it. In contrast, Jonathan Rauch makes it central in The Constitution of Knowledge. But Rauch also disappoints, as I wrote about here.

I think that the best contribution of Pinker to rationality is The Blank Slate, which I have praised on many occasions. I would recommend reading or re-reading that one over reading Rationality.